Tuesday 22 April 2014

'Lonesome You' by Park Wan-suh (Review)

With 2014 seemingly becoming the year of Korean literature here at Tony's Reading List, I'm continuing my look at Dalkey Archive's Library of Korean Literature.  Today's choice is from a very well-known and popular writer, and after a few novels, this time we're looking at a collection of short stories.  What's it all about?  Well, many things, but mostly it looks at growing old in a changing society - and the problems this entails...

Park Wan-suh's Lonesome You (translated by Elizabeth Haejin Yoon, review copy courtesy of the publisher) contains nine longish stories focusing primarily on issues the elderly face in modern-day Korea.  From love in life's twilight years to dealing with the in-laws, Park examines the way changing traditions have left the older generations adrift, at the mercy of relatives who no longer feel quite as much veneration for the elderly as was previously the case.

Several of the stories look at the realities of striking up new relationships at an advanced age.  The opening story, 'Withered Flower', sees a widow meet a handsome widower on a coach journey back to Seoul, gradually developing a close friendship with him.  However, there are a couple of obstacles in the way.  One is the determination of overbearing family members to push the two into marriage; the other is slightly more personal:
"I strutted out of the bathroom into the adjoining bedroom naked - moments like this undoubtedly being one of the perks of living alone .  I threw a small towel under my feet to catch the water dripping from my body and reached for the phone.  Then I froze in mid-action.  Who was that hideous old woman?  I almost screamed out loud at the reflection in the mirror."
'Withered Flower', p.26 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013)
It's an unwelcome reality check for a woman who prides herself on her appearance...

The title story, 'Lonesome You', takes a slightly different look at the topic as it explores the life of a couple who have virtually separated.  Meeting at their son's graduation, the two escape from the son's girlfriend's interfering parents, ending up alone together for the first time in a while.  Initially the wife is repelled by the man she is tied to by law, but she gradually starts to realise why he has turned out as he has and the extent of his sacrifices for the family.  While his actions may have angered her at times, she comes to realise that he was always thinking of what was best for his wife and their children.

Unlike the protagonists of these stories though, some of the elderly characters are dependent on their families, and the responsibility of caring for parents is a common theme running through the collection.  In 'Psychedelic Butterfly', an old woman frequently shuttled between her children's houses runs away, and the children feel guilty about their inability to decide what to do:
"This world was too, too small, and allowed all kinds of associations.  One could always find a link, however remote, among relatives, school friends, and hometown acquaintances.  Even a bottom feeder and a top dog were connected in some way, if one searched hard enough."
'An Unbearable Secret' (p.97)
It's this societal pressure which makes things so difficult.  Everyone expects the eldest son to take on the responsibility of caring for a widowed mother, and when this doesn't happen, people start to talk...

This guilt is also prominent in 'Long Boring Movie', a story in which a woman recalls her mother's last days while planning her father's move to an apartment close to hers.  In this story, her brother is constantly making biting remarks, tacitly accusing his sister of having an eye on his inheritance - despite the fact that he has no intention of looking after his father himself.  This eldest son's pressure is actually mirrored in the father's behaviour as the daughter starts to think that his wandering eye may have stemmed from the pressure he felt as the head of the family.

A slightly different theme which appears in Lonesome You is the connection between Korea and the United States, with several of the stories featuring tales of emigrants in, or coming back from, America.  'Thorn inside Petals', a story of two elderly sisters, first looks at the bizarre behaviour of an elderly ex-pat before showing us how she made her way in the US.  This sombre tale is nicely balanced by 'J-1 Visa', the light-hearted story of a Korean writer desperately trying to get a visa to attend a seminar in the US, one which turns into an amusing rant about colonialism...

There's a lot to interest the reader here, particularly in its view of a male-dominated, patriarchal society, but Lonesome You is certainly not my favourite of the series so far.  For one thing, the stories tend to be overly long, unfocused and rambling.  The nine stories are spread over 250 pages, and to be honest, you get the feeling that they would have been much better if they'd only run to 150.  There were a couple of times when I was simply skim-reading to get back into the flow of the story, not something I usually do.

I'd also say that I wasn't overly convinced by the writing, whether that's the fault of the original or the translation.  There were too many odd vocabulary choices, and at times it all felt rather stilted.  As a whole, it didn't really flow, and there were a couple of stories (including 'A Ball-playing Woman') which I just didn't rate at all...

An interesting comparison to make here is with the undisputed Korean hit-in-translation of recent years, Shin Kyung-sook's Please Look After MotherLonesome You explores many of the same themes, and if you liked Shin's book, you may well enjoy this.  Of course, as my regular readers will know, I hated it with a passion, so it's unsurprising that I didn't enjoy Lonesome You as much as some others might;)

Park may be a big name back in Korea, but I'm afraid her work isn't really to my taste.  There's a lot more K-Lit coming this way over the next few months, but I think I'll continue my K-Lit odyssey with someone else's books...